Friday, May 2, 2008

Presidential Death Match: Media’s Big Event

Part One: Green Lighting Our Fatal Distractions

Presidential elections have been media spectacles for almost 50 years, roughly since television became the national drug. One landmark 1960 production, arguably the first televised “presidential death match,” pitted Jack Kennedy, an Arthurian figure to be sure, against Dick Nixon, doing a creepy Richard III imitation. Their TV debate is said to have turned the tide, but the election itself was questionable, and high Camelot hopes were cut short by assassination and war.

Every four years since then, corporate chiefs, media gatekeepers, and political fixers have manufactured new scripts and a new superstar. For a while it’s a B-grade actor, then a drugged-up Yalie, a world-class narcissist, or a born-again cowboy. Anything is possible. And it’s a guaranteed blockbuster every time, a fatal distraction for which you don't need a ticket. Only one problem: there’s no way out until the last pundit sings.

This year, we have a truly “high concept” scenario: the first viable woman candidate –wife of an ex-president – facing the first viable Black candidate, with the winning Democrat in a showdown with an aging warrior who would be king, a tragic hero willing to put his maverick persona in an undisclosed location and replay the Vietnam War in the Middle East. It’s a real cliffhanger, and no one knows yet whether they’ll be making history – or making war.

If DreamWorks had handled the casting, we might be looking at Meryl Streep, who delivered as a ruthless Senator with Lady MacBeth ambitions in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, slinging mud at a cool but sharp Will Smith. There would be plenty of choices for the role of McCain, including Robert Duval, Martin Sheen, James Brolin or Jon Voight – all of whom have already played the president on screen.

But this blockbuster, like those before it, appeared only after a series of short-term shows designed to boost TV ratings, test concepts, and transfer escalating production costs to campaign contributors. Since the major media have to cover presidential campaigns anyway, they prefer to handle the casting and plot points as well. Until money is removed from the equation, think of primary races for president as TV pilots and limited-run shows competing for the best notices. In 2008, we certainly had some promising entries.

From 9/11 Productions came Terminator 4: The Last Action Mayor, in which Rudy Giuliani attempted to bull his way into the nomination by scaring the public as often as possible and bypassing the early primaries. Unfortunately, he didn’t send a duplicate Rudy back from the future to warn him that it wouldn’t work. In There Will Be God, Mitt Romney played a no-nonsense manager with some religious baggage, unnervingly confident and yet undone by his chameleon past. We kept waiting for the real Mitt to show up, but in the end even he couldn’t find himself.

Many people were captivated by John Edwards in his comeback series, Return of the Candidate. Considered a lightweight in the 2004 season, Edwards exceeded expectations this time, yet couldn’t overcome his image as a southern fried Robert Redford. Others tuned in for Mike Huckabee’s mini-series, Being Mike Huckabee. It was supposedly based on the Jerzy Kosinski book, Being There, and the Peter Sellers movie. A spaced-out oddball keeps getting elected and listened to because people think he’s pleasant and has down-home wisdom. But he actually knows very little and just likes being on TV. The joke got old and people stopped watching. Still, they’re thinking of bringing the character back in the fall, with a quirky Charlie Kaufman script; various people go through a portal into Mike’s head, then get dumped on a dirt road in rural Arkansas.

I can’t leave out The Rad Couple II, this time starring Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul. It’s become a genre over the decades, usually based on the feisty outsider story line. In 2000, Kucinich teamed up with Al Sharpton for the first installment of a possible new franchise – buddy-pols on the road to nowhere. Forced to work together, two very different candidates found common ground as they took on their toughest case – saving the country’s soul. Kucinich and Sharpton were amusing and passionate, but the early reviews were respectfully skeptical. The ratings, predictably, were abysmal.

In a sense, Rad Couple was a spinoff of the 2000 cult hit, Mission Improbable, produced by Oddball Enterprises in association with a consortium of casino owners and the World Wrestling Federation. In order to save the world, if you recall, a team of highly-decorated misfits waged psychological warfare on the two major political parties. The problem was that they couldn't resist trashing each other. Ross Perot made a guest appearance as the cranky team leader who gave incomprehensible assignments and couldn't help upstaging his own men.

Every four years there are a mixture of sequels and remakes, old stories and tried-and-true formulas. (For a review of the 2000 season, click here.) In 2004, George Bush and Charlton Heston were slated to team up for Mullah II: The Arms Race, a sequel to Bush’s 2000 hit, A Fistful of Mullah. The new story was expected to revolve around bringing compassion back into the death business, but Heston died and a more powerful premise emerged. The result was For a Few Barrels More. The Man with No Scruples was back in this epic western sequel, set in an atmosphere of global war and domestic division. Bush prevailed by ignoring the problems, preferring to search for illusive (and possible non-existent) enemies, the Evildoers, foes so insane they rejected his offer to surrender their oil reserves and get off the planet.

In another sequel, Post-Millennium Man, Howard Dean led a cyber-crusade to save the Democratic Party, driven underground by the masters of the Matrix. In an early episode, Al Gore reprised his role as the Chosen One (now in exile) in Millennium Man, uniting with Bill Bradley and other survivors of the November 2000 apocalypse. There were strong early ratings, but reviews from Iowa set the stage for a meltdown.

In The Mild Bunch, battle-scarred combat veterans – John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Lieberman – were joined by a gung-ho rookie, the super-glib John Edwards. Their mission: to save their party from Dean, here cast in the role of a renegade general who had created his own insurgent army, the Deaniacs. In an early episode, Gephardt sang Yesterday, revealing the depth of his disillusionment as he confessed to being “nostalgic for Ronald Reagan.” In their Iowa caper, he was the first casualty. Once Dean was gone, however, the bunch promptly turned on one another.

You Go, Girl! was a short-lived Carol Mosley Braun vehicle, based on Working Girl. In this comedy-drama, Braun made a bold and occasionally refreshing play to break the glass ceiling. She couldn’t close the deal, but did manage a partial redemption.

Finally, a late action entry: Wesley Clark’s Full Mental Jacket, a cautionary anti-war tale about the rise of rebellious general. After leading the attack on Yugoslavia and pimping for the Bush team, Clark had second thoughts, became a Democrat, and immediately ran for President. With cameos by Michael Moore and George McGovern as progressive camouflage. Industry talk said that it was actually a Clinton production.

Next: Lessons of 2004

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